Made in the Berkshires: Funky and creative uses for old recycled clothing
Photo Gallery | Made in the Berkshires: Crispina ffrench
PITTSFIELD — Crispina ffrench describes herself as an "environmental textile artist," a term that can confuse people.
"Sometimes it's kind of hard for people to understand," she said. "Basically, what I do is take used clothing and make it into new stuff."
ffrench began working with recycled clothing while attending the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston in the late 1980s. It's turned into an interesting journey and a lucrative business for the Stockbridge native.
ffrench makes clothing, blankets, rugs, toys and accessories like scarves out of the used clothing that she collects, mostly discarded woolen sweaters purchased at places like the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries.
Some of her work is done at Shire City Sanctuary at 40 Melville St., the former Catholic church that ffrench and her husband, Christopher Swindlehurst, have owned since 2006.
ffrench also blogs, teaches, and holds workshops on her techniques. And if that weren't enough, ffrench and her sister, Sophia Hughes, run the Dolphin Studio in Stockbridge, a second generation screen-printing business that is developing a line of kitchen textiles and stationery.
Her work has been sold by several high end retail establishments like Patagonia and Fiorucci, and featured in publications like The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Martha Stewart Living.
She runs an annual pre-Christmas "Holiday Shindy" at Shire City Sanctuary which features all kinds of handcrafted items made by local artisans.
It's obviously a busy life, with several careers going on simultaneously. Her gratification comes from helping people learn more about how to use the materials that she works with. These items used to be viewed as afterthoughts.
"I have had the opportunity to inspire a lot of people to work with materials that weren't thought of as actual materials, but as something that you want to get rid of," ffrench said.
The daughter of two former art teachers at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, ffrench began working with textiles after she became interested in recycling in art school.
"Back in the 1980s when I was in college, the bottle bill was getting a lot of publicity in Massachusetts," ffrench said. "I was interested in recycling and learned that there was a lot of waste generated in the textile industry, just in the amount of stuff that went to Goodwill.
"The material, the fabric, is really useful," she said. "Maybe the clothing is out of style or has holes. I thought it was more useful in different ways.
"For some reason I was really taken by it," ffrench said. "I believed when I was 18 years old at Mass. Art that I was going to change the world."
ffrench, who graduated from Mass. Art in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in 3D fine art, was a pioneer in her chosen field.
"A lot of what I was doing had never been done before," she said. "People were turned off by it initially, like they wondered if the things were clean."
ffrench started by making handmade toys out of felt. She switched to wool after her father, a ceramics artist, told her she could obtain material with a texture similar to felt from shrunken sweaters.
"So off we went to the Salvation Army and bought all the wool sweaters we could find and shrunk them," ffrench said. "That turned out to be a much more fun process."
ffrench originally started by making small dolls she calls "ragamuffins" by stuffing lavender into material culled from the sweaters she obtained.
ffrench sold the early versions of that product at a craft store cooperative in Cambridge where the artisans gave her advice on how to succeed in the art business.
"Some of those people are still some of my best friends," ffrench said. "They really helped me a lot."
A turning point came in 1989 when on her mother's advice ffrench applied and was accepted to be a vendor at an American Craft Council Show in West Springfield.
"I freakin' rocked it," ffrench said. "I sold like $20,000 worth of stuff."
But ffrench only brought samples of her work to West Springfield not finished products. She was waiting tables to help makes ends meet, and now had to go home and fill all her orders with no employees.
Taking the advice of a California couple that ffrench befriended in West Springfield, ffrench went to nursing homes and found people who liked to sew and had their own needles and yarns.
"My first two employees were like 85-year-old ladies at Stockbridge Elderly Housing," ffrench said. One of them worked for her for 10 years.
The business kept growing. Two years after graduating from Mass. Art ffrench had 40 employees. By the time she closed her business in 2008, ffrench said she was buying 4,000 pound tractor-trailer loads of used sweaters at a time.
ffrench originally sold her business to Nancy Fitzpatrick in 2003. The two women worked together as partners with Fitzpatrick helping to build up the production side of the business (they had their own store in Lenox). In 2008, ffrench decided to leave the business entirely because her creative side was being stifled.
"At one point my dad asked me what are you making in the studio today?" ffrench said. "I thought, 'What am I really making in the studio today?' What I'm really making today are phone calls and emails. I'm not really making anything anymore."
Since downsizing six years ago, ffrench said, "I pretty much work alone," although she still outsources work to people who work from their homes.
"It's a nice way for people who are home for a reason like having small children or aging parents to earn an income," she said.
She's turned the Shire City Sanctuary, formerly the Notre Dame Church, into an artisan's cooperative where artists pay a monthly fee to use space.
"It's like a gym for makers," said ffrench, who currently has some 16 artisans renting space in the building.
ffrench and Swindlehurst are also seeking other uses for the former church, which was built in 1895. They have previously tried to sell the building, but took it off the market some 18 months ago.
"We're trying to figure out the next kind of chapters," she said. "We're open to suggestions."
She may also simplify her many interests.
"In all honesty, I feel like I'm ready to make a little change," ffrench said. "2016 will be a little different for me. I'm focusing on narrowing down my product offerings."
Given her history, her items should continue to be unique.
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